A colonial hangover that caused all the trouble


South African Defence Force (SANDF) members parade during a dress rehearsal ahead of the State of the Nation Address (SONA) on February 08, 2017 in Cape Town, South Africa.

So, are we now at a point where the president can only deliver what is arguably his most important political speech surrounded not just by thousands of police, but by the army as well?

The sharp increase in the deployment of army personnel for this year’s State of the Nation address (from 168 four years ago to 441) said much about the kind of nation we have become, and the direction in which are sliding.

Ordinarily, the primary job of the army is to defend the Republic from external threats to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is accepted that it may, when the situation demands, play a supportive role to the police when they cannot maintain law and order on their own.

Are we now being told that we have reached that stage, where the police can no longer perform their basic task of preserving law and order on their own?

The difficulty with this assumption is that the nation was not appraised of the exact essence of the threat which led to the deployment of the army on the streets of Cape Town.

But assuming for a moment that there was indeed a grave threat to public order, requiring the level of security deployment we saw, should we not at least have been told what the threat was? Why were we considered not old enough to be taken into government’s confidence?

And where was the threat to public order coming from? Was it from an outside enemy or our own citizenry? Was it from the likes of Save SA and the Economic Freedom Fighters (who are the avowed critics of the president)? Or was it from the ANC’s own “people’s parliament”, then due to be held a stone’s throw from the national legislature? 

In the absence of a clear and coherent explanation from the authorities, rumours about the nature of the threat abounded – from shack land protesters wanting to generally disrupt proceedings to dark hints (from none other than the army spokesman) of a chemical or biological threat.

But there were three things we knew for sure. The first was that, as they had done before in parliament, the EFF had vowed to again prevent the president from speaking. The second was that the president himself said the army deployment was, in his own words, for the maintenance of “law and order”. This linked with the third point – the speaker of parliament’s assertion that the government “ought to be able to show the authority of the state”.

Cumulatively, the above facts disproved the possibility that the republic faced an imminent external threat. The only reasonable conclusion was that the increased army numbers were aimed at showing political enemies and dissenting civil society formations who is in charge, and that the state would brook no embarrassing disruptions.

But we should not be surprised by this turn of events. The state has increasingly showed a proclivity to depart from the spirit of a constitution bequeathed by the nation’s founding fathers.

When threatened by political or civic dissent, it has tended to default to the use or threat of force. And, as shown by the infamous signal-jamming incident in parliament two years ago, those in power seem to prefer a secretive, rather than open society with transparent government.

The increased deployment of the army to parliament was but one more signpost in our gradual slide from the basic tenets of our constitution.

Which brings us to what should be the prior, more fundamental question in this particular case – whether it is not time for the nation to get rid of the farcical pomp-and-ceremony that accompanies the state of the nation address?

Why should our legislators and political elites have to parade on the red carpet like peacocks in order for them to hear the president’s annual address? What value does the nation derive from this colonial hangover, which disrupts normal life and even closes schools in Cape Town?

It may sound trite, but the money spent on the occasion (and its provincial and other versions) could be better spent in a country with so much need and hunger? Would the money not be more beneficially spent by providing indigent girls with sanitary pads, for starters?